Friday, 14 November 2014

Birding the Iwokrama Forest, Guyana

Our first day's birding in interior Guyana produced Crimson Fruitcrow and roosting Long-tailed Potoo – close enough that even I could get photos with my decidedly non-professional camera. The Fruitcrow provided prolonged and low-level views and was mobbed by passerines since, unlike most cotingas, it is not entirely frugivorous.

But we kept birding...

One of the resident pair of Orange-breasted Falcons at the Turtle Mountain lookout.

And another orange bird...

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Pakaraimas and Surama

Unbroken forest as far as the eye can see above the Pakaraimas. With the Venezuelan Guayana, this forms the world's largest tropical wilderness. After an hour's flight we curl around ridges into the approach to the Makushi village of Surama, where the majestic Rupununi savannas begin.


Kaieteur: not the world's highest waterfall

Guyana Tourist Board has done a thorough job in convincing visitors that this is the highest falls in the world. No matter: this is a stunning place (even if the drop is some 700m short of Venezuela's Kerepakupai-vená).

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rufous-thighed Kite (Harpagus diodon): a new Atlantic Forest breeding endemic

Rufous-thighed Kite (Harpagus diodon)
Rufous-thighed Kite Harpagus diodon. By Rick elis.simpson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Last month, I came across a neat little paper re-examining the migratory status of the enigmatic Rufous-thighed Kite Harpagus diodon, a species usually mapped over a large area of South America east of the Andes and, until fairly recently, assumed to be a thinly-spread resident. Using museum specimen data, and harnessing the power of increasingly popular collaborative avian datasets such as xeno-canto, eBird, the Internet Bird Collection, and especially WikiAves, the authors took a closer look at the facts (Lees & Martin 2014). Their detective work shows how much we often take for granted about South American bird distributions and highlights the enormous value of free data-sharing initiatives. I liked the research enough to write a short news bulletin at the start of the month. The authors do a much better job today on the BOU blog post A tale of two kites

These findings are not merely of academic importance. Given that Rufous-thighed Kite is now thought to be an Atlantic Forest breeding endemic and that only 11·7% of this biome remains (Ribeiro et al. 2009), the species could be in serious trouble. Populations at the end of 19th century are likely to have been at least ten times higher than at present (Lees & Martin 2014) and its current rarity may simply be explained as the result of catastrophic loss of habitat.


Bierregaard, R.O., Jr, Bonan, A., Marks, J.S. & Sharpe, C.J. (2014) Rufous-thighed Kite (Harpagus diodon). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 30 September 2014). 

BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Harpagus diodon. Downloaded from on 30/09/2014.

Lees, A.C. & Martin, R.W. (2014) Exposing hidden endemism in a Neotropical forest raptor using citizen science. Ibis doi: 10.1111/ibi.12207. PDF

Ribeiro, M.C., Metzger, J.P., Martensen, A.C., Ponzoni, F.J. & Hirota, M.M. (2009) The Brazilian Atlantic Forest: how much is left, and how is the remaining forest distributed? Implications for conservation. Biological Conservation 142(6): 1141-1153. PDF

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Curious Naturalist's library: Guyana

In a couple of weeks' time I will be returning to Guyana for a month of bird tours. If you have not considered Guyana as a birding destination, you might like whet your appetite with Chris Collins' 2007 article in Neotropical Birding, Guyana: South America's overlooked birding destination and An update on birding in Guyana, co-authored with Barry Walker. Interested? The one snag with birding Guyana is that there is currently no field guide to the birds of Guyana, so people always ask which identification guides to take. These are my recommendations.

A Field Checklist of the Birds of Guyana, 2nd edition by Mike Braun, Davis Finch, Mark Robbins & Brian Schmidt. PDF.
The definitive published checklist, listing the 814 species recorded as of 2007. Use in conjunction with the following book. An updated list can be found at the SACC website.

Birds of Venezuela by Steve Hilty.
If you can take only one bird guide, this is it. One of the best Neotropical field guides ever written (review), it covers the vast majority of Guyana's avifauna – and a whole lot more besides. Decades of field experience are compressed by this gifted author into descriptions that are at once precise, detailed and even poetic. Voice transcriptions are – to my ear at least –  unrivalled. Not the lightest of field guides, it will reduce that already tight luggage limit by 1.4 kg. It will come in handy for future trips to Venezuela. The same author's Birds of Tropical America is required pre-trip reading.

Birds of Northern South America: An Identification Guide, Volume 2: Plates and Maps by Robin Restall, Clemencia Rodner, & Miguel Lentino.
An encyclopaedic compilation on the birds of the region, with handy maps, reliable text and a huge number of plates covering almost every plumage. A labour of love, the plates are carefully painted direct from museum specimens and are at once painstakingly accurate yet sometimes not quite like the bird as encountered in the field. The only guide to depict everything you will encounter in-country. Many plumages – such as male Black-throated Antshrike Frederickena viridis – are illustrated nowhere else. An enormously valuable reference, and despite weight restrictions it is worth taking this into the field. Volume 1 provides a lot more text.

Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America: The Passerines by Robert S. Ridgely & Guy Tudor.
Distilled from Ridgely and Tudor's groundbreaking (and backbreaking!) two-volume The Birds of South America, this portable edition comprises more than 1,500 illustrations covering nearly 2,000 species. The accompanying text is short, but wonderfully succinct. Ideal for grappling with those little brown jobs. A valuable reference, but perhaps weight restrictions will consign it to the office rather than the field.

Birds of South America: Non-Passerines: Rheas to Woodpeckers by Francisco Erize & Maurice Rumboll.
A much smaller, almost pocket-sized guide that complements Ridgely and Tudor in coverage. All the information on each species is presented opposite the illustration in a double-page spread. Rather uneven in quality, but can be useful.

Birds of Venezuela mp3 CD, version 2.0 by Peter Boesman. Available as a CD or for immediate download from
Peter has been recording Venezuelan bird sounds since the 1990s and has already published a CD-ROM (review), mp3 CD, DVD-ROM and now this mp3 DVD. Over the years I have acquired them all and used them constantly. This latest production contains 4,196 recordings of 1,270 species, many of which occur in Guyana. A small number of the featured recordings are my own.

Voices of the Brazilian Amazon / Vozes da Amazônia Brasileira, Vol. 1 by Luciano Naka, Phil Stouffer, Mario Cohn-Haft, Curtis Marantz, Andy Whittaker & Bob Bierregard.
The vocalisations of 350 species of birds on 4 CDs by the region's top bird song experts. This first volume covers Manaus area and the Guianas. I have not been able to acquire a copy, but this has to be good.

Bird voices from French Guiana / Chant d'Oiseaux de Guyane by Alexandre Renaudier & Frenand Deroussen. The songs and calls of 230 species illustrated by 583 recordings on 3 CDs. The cuts are of excellent quality and most of the species are found in Guyana.

Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, 2nd edition by Louise Emmons & François Feer. Slim enough to carry anywhere, this is still the best one-volume guide to our region's mammals.

Mammals of the Neotropics, Volume 1: The Northern Neotropics: Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana by John F. Eisenberg. Not a field guide, but still the only reference of its type. Hard to believe that this ground-breaking publication is 25 years old this year.

Guyana & Guianas Region 1:850,000 Travel Map by International Travel Maps
Don't get lost! Having helped supply their cartographer, Kevin Healey, with information on Latin America in the early 1990s, in my experience, the Canadian company ITMB always seems to publish the most helpful and accurate travel maps. No exception here: the Guyana & Guianas map integrates relief, roads and parks in a clear and practical format. Have a great trip!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book review: Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet

Mark Cocker
Jonathan Cape | 2014
238 pp. | 14.5 x 22 cm
Hardback | £14.99 / $ 35.00 | ISBN: 9780224099653

I was kindly sent a copy of the forthcoming Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, after reviewing the author's magnum opus, Birds and People.

This collection consists of 140 short pieces that were originally published in the Guardian and other newspapers. Written over a period of 12 years, they are presented in calendar order here, each chapter corresponding to a month – ideal for dipping into over the course of a year. Many of the entries have been expanded to include text which went beyond the original constraints of a newspaper column.

The germ for each note is typically a chance encounter with some natural phenomenon – a bird, an otter, a fruiting tree – which the writer uses to examine the responses deep within himself, to record details apparent only to those who have immersed themselves in the outdoors. Mark Cocker's keen perception of nature, his power of reflection and his gift for putting our common experiences into words make him one of our most accomplished nature writers. This format probably suits his approach more than any other. Each essay is just long enough to allow him to paint the picture. Each observation is a finely-crafted work of art.

It is no coincidence that the author quotes at the start of the book from the greatest of all nature diaries: Thoreau's Journal. Coincidentally, I happen to have spent the past few months slowly savouring Damion Searls' new one-volume selection from the Journal. Thoreau's entries are longer and more demanding, often needing to be re-read and mulled in order to extract their full meaning; Cocker's pieces are concise, highly-distilled reflections which speak directly and immediately to the reader. Delicate and delightful, each vignette makes its impact at once. However, there is a cumulative effect that builds slowly: each additional nature note adds a new perspective to our vision of this place. The author's New England is Norfolk, specifically the village of Claxton, a few miles south-east of Norwich. Although there is a definite East Anglian flavour, these notes will resonate with anyone who has an appreciation of the English countryside.

This turns out to be the sixth book I have read by Mark Cocker. Each has been rewarding, but I suspect that this may end up being the one that I most often pull off my shelves.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Book review: A Sparrowhawk's Lament by David Cobham

A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring

David Cobham with Bruce Pearson
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2014
256 pp. | 15.2 x 21.6 cm | 80 illustrations
Hardback | £24.95 / $ 35.00 | ISBN: 9780691157641

I am half way through A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey are Faring by David Cobham, illustrated by Bruce Pearson. This is a WILDGuides publication, but quite a departure from the photographic field guides for which the imprint is usually known. It is a personal look at the status of the UK's raptors, written by someone who has a long history of involvement in the conservation of our birds of prey, and a current vice-president of the Hawk and Owl Trust. The writing is a little quirky, being a conversational mixture of field notes, diary entries, interviews and personal recollections of meetings with a variety of people and excursions to every corner of the UK, all supported by bibliographic research; it takes some getting used to, but the passion and experience shine through to make this a rewarding, thought-provoking and topical read.

A chapter is devoted to each of the UK's 15 breeding diurnal raptors species, examining their changing fortunes from the earliest records to the present day. Most of the UK's species follow the same sad trajectory of abundance in the pre-industrial age, persecution by gamekeepers to near extinction or extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries (particularly after the 1831 Game Act and often tipped over the edge by egg-collectors and / or organochloride pesticide contamination in the 1950s), and contemporary resurgence in response to the conservation actions of a handful of dedicated individuals and organisations. Despite legal protection, the attacks by gamekeepers continue. Kestrel and Merlin populations have, unfortunately, not turned around and the once-familiar sight of the Windhover hanging over the verges of our highways is no longer a feature of road travel. But the glaring exception is the Hen Harrier, still illegally poisoned, trapped and shot by the managers of grouse moors and now teetering on the brink of extinction in England. With outrage about brazen illegal persecution and 'establishment' complicity becoming a political issue, this is quite a topical read. The texts are well complemented by Bruce Pearson's watercolours (reproduced in monochrome), that really capture the spirit of each species.

The author is careful not to turn the book into a critique of those who would have us return to the low raptor densities that unrelenting persecution had achieved before the First World War. Although he does not shy away from recounting the now familiar tales of extermination, he is keen to provide a balanced appraisal and above all to make this a positive book. Indeed, this is an uplifting read. I am finding plenty to enjoy, not least the resonance of described behaviours with those I have been lucky enough to witness myself as well as familiar haunts that crop up in the text. In the winters of the early 1980s I watched the Bowland Forest Hen Harriers hunting in over the hills of Nidderdale, and I have seen the careful protection and monitoring of Marsh Harrier nests at Sculthorpe Moor. The chapter on the Sparrowhawk – a species I monitored closely as a boy – is particularly evocative. And like the author and Mark Cocker (cited in the text) I am saddened by the efforts of political lobby groups like the ironically named SongBird Survival to vilify the species in order to detract attention from the real causes of biodiversity loss. No wonder that such organisations like to compare current raptor populations with those at their nadir a century ago.

A book to be read right through or dipped into at leisure, A Sparrowhawk's Lament is a fitting tribute to our birds of prey and those who work to conserve them. Whether beginner or specialist, everyone will learn something about our formidable, yet vulnerable diurnal raptors.

The author and artist will be interviewed by ChrisPackham at the UK Birdfair tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Neotropical Birding 15 is out!

Back from a few days' camping in the Yorkshire Dales to find copies of Neotropical Birding 15 on my doormat, fresh from the printers...

Welcome to issue 15 of Neotropical Birding!

The Autumn 2014 issue of Neotropical Birding, NB15, has just been published. This issue commemorates the life of Alexandre Renaudier, the young French ornithologist who died prematurely last year. Alex was a very keen birder, who spent most of his time in the field and made some extraordinary ornithological discoveries. He had a sensitive ear, testimony to which is the wonderful collection of recordings he co-authored: Bird Voices from French Guiana. He had a close relationship with NBC, acting as Country Representative for France and French Guiana between 2006 and 2013.

Appropriately, our cover story presents the first photographs of the enigmatic Rusty Tinamou Crypturellus brevirostris from Alex's adopted home, French Guiana – truly Birding at the cutting edge.

Our first Photospot provides further ground-breaking images from the same country, this time of nesting Black-bellied Cuckoo Piaya melanogaster, while the second piece is dedicated to another mysterious species, Giant Snipe Gallinago undulata.

Alex rarely found the desk-time necessary to publish his findings, but in our Identification Workshop, he and his friend Olivier Claessens reprise Field identification of Least and Yellow-billed Terns, a subject explored by Floyd Hayes in Cotinga in 2001. Further advances have made this challenge a lot easier and should result in better reporting in the future.

Switching environments somewhat, the American Bird Conservancy's Dan Lebbin takes us back to northern Peru, in a sequel to his Nightbirds article published in NB11. Dan returns in the daytime, with some suggestions for tracking down 50 species of hummingbird. A Hummingbird Paradise, perhaps?

No issue of Neotropical Birding is complete without an invitation from Alex Lees to “get your lists out” for another roller-coaster ride through the world of avian taxonomy and systematics in Splits, lumps and shuffles (one of Alex Renaudier's favourite columns).

Our compilation of recent published and unpublished records, Neotropical Notebook, is compiled by Guy Kirwan and his team of collaborators: Dušan Brinkhuizen, Diego Calderón, Bradley Davis, Jeremy Minns and Kini Roesler.

NBC has always played a role in conserving Neotropical Birds. Jez Bird tells us about this year's award winners and the continuing benefits of projects financed in the past in NBC Conservation Awards Update. Your contribution to NBC helps Award recipients give something back to the Neotropical birds we all enjoy.

We round off the issue with Book reviews of two of last year's most exciting publications: Birdwatching in Colombia and Birds and People.

Happy Neotropical birding!

Christopher J. Sharpe, Senior Editor

Neotropical Birding 15: contents

Sharpe, C. J. (2014) Welcome to issue 14 of Neotropical Birding. Neotrop. Birding 15: 2.

Ingels, J., Claessens, O. & de Pracontal, N. (2014) Neotropical Birding 15: a tribute to Alexandre Renaudier. Neotrop. Birding 15: 3. E-mail:

Lees, A. C. (2014) Splits, lumps and shuffles. Neotrop. Birding 15: 4–14. [resume of recent publications on taxonomy and systematics concerning multiple taxa] E-mail:

Rufray, V., Pelletier, V. & Ingels, J. (2014) First photographs and new records of the Rusty Tinamou Crypturellus brevirostris from French Guiana. Neotrop. Birding 15: 15–19. [Crypturellus brevirostris] E-mail: /

Claessens, O. &  Renaudier, A. (2014) Field identification of Least and Yellow-billed Terns: experience from French Guiana. Neotrop. Birding 15: 22–31. [Sternula superciliaris, Sternula antillarum] E-mail:

Lebbin, D., Aucca Chutas, C., Olmos, F. & Spencer, A. (2014) Hummingbird paradise: northern Peru. Neotrop. Birding 15: 33–41. [multiple Trochilidae spp. of N Perú] E-mail:

Kirwan, G. M., Brinkhuizen, D., Calderón, D., Davis, B., Minns, J. & Roesler, I. (2014) Neotropical Notebook: published and unpublished records. Neotrop. Birding 15: 46–62. [resume of recent records concerning multiple taxa] E-mail:

Ingels, J. & Fernandez, M. (2014) Photospot: A nest of Black-bellied Cuckoo Piaya melanogaster in French Guiana. Neotrop. Birding 15: 63–65. [Piaya melanogaster] E-mail:

Smith, P., Bland, D. & Clay, R. (2014) Photospot: Waka Waka: The Giant Snipe Gallinago undulata in Paraguay. Neotrop. Birding 15: 66–69. [Gallinago undulata] E-mail:

Bird, J. (2014) NBC Conservation Awards update. Neotrop. Birding 15: 71–75. [Glaucidium nubicola, Megascops colombianus, Coeligena orina, Henicorhina negreti, Dacnis hartlaubi, Compsospiza garleppi] E-mail:

Morris, P. (2014) Book review: Birdwatching in Colombia. Neotrop. Birding 15: 78–79. E-mail:

Sharpe, C. J. (2014) Book review: Birds and people. Neotrop. Birding 15: 79–80. E-mail:

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Book review: Woodpeckers of the World by Gerard Gorman

Woodpeckers of the World

Gerard Gorman
Christopher Helm | 2014
528 pp. | 17 x 24 cm | 722 colour photographs. 239 maps Hardback | £35 / $49.95 | ISBN: 978-1-4081-4715-3

Gerard Gorman is a woodpecker nut. I know because I have been privileged enough to have spent a couple of weeks with him in the field, sharing part of his quest for the world's woodpeckers. Our field trip took place in 2009 and began when we met in an aeroplane on the way to Guyana. As owners of bird tour companies, we had both been invited to travel to Guyana on a 'fam' trip. We met on the London – Port-of-Spain leg and, since we had been assigned adjacent seats, spent much of the ten hour flight talking about birds. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the Picidae! The trip came out of the blue for me and I had been unable to return home to load my collection of bird vocalisations onto my iPod, but Gerard assured me that he had everything that we would need. Some time into the flight I asked to borrow his iPod. When I scrolled through the species list, I found only woodpeckers... Throughout our Guyana trip, Gerard would always home in on a woodpecker, even to the point of shunning some of the Neotropics' most charismatic species. Since then I have regarded this often-overlooked family in a new light and with renewed interest. So who better to guide us through the world of woodpeckers?

This is a major new overview of the world's woodpeckers by an expert on the subject who has two previous woodpecker publications under his belt: Woodpeckers of Europe and The Black Woodpecker. Woodpecker taxonomy is a subject for debate, but for the purposes of this book the author recognises 239 species. Each receives a detailed text with information on identification, vocalisations, food, conservation status, habitat, range and notes on taxonomy and similar species. Interestingly, for the first time, the author specifically includes information on drumming – or absence of it. Each species account is accompanied by a range map and typically several photographs illustrating sexual dimorphism or subspecific variation.

As one would expect, the text has been exhaustively researched and carefully compiled from a broad range of primary sources, but the author himself has travelled widely to gain extra field experience with a large number of species. So this is more than a literature review; it is a real contribution to our knowledge of woodpeckers. As the author recognises: “During my research it soon became clear that many species of woodpecker are poorly-known, with questions on taxonomy, biology, behaviour, distribution and even existence remaining unanswered.” One of the contributions of this book is to point out areas that require further research.

Good as the text is, the photographs are surely going to be the main reason for purchasing this book. There are, on average, three images per species and the quality is generally excellent. My favourites are the Piculus, the photographs capturing the striking plumage and eye colour that often receive rather drab treatment in field guides. I have to mention the wonderful sequence of the interior of a Downy Woodpecker nest, showing the development of the young.

Maps need some checking. For example, of the Neotropical woodpeckers I checked, Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis is shown on Hispaniola rather than Cuba; the Trinidadian range of Chestnut Woodpecker Celeus elegans is not shown, whereas Red-crowned Melanerpes rubricapillus is erroneously shown on Trinidad (it is found on Tobago); the Belizean range of Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus is not depicted; Cinnamon Woodpecker Celeus loricatus is shown for W Venezuela, although it does not occur in the country; and the NE Venezuela range of Golden-spangled Piculet Picumnus exilis is absent.

For those who already have Winkler et al.'s 1995 Pica Press Woodpeckers of the World (and / or HBW 7, published in 2002), is there enough novel content to justify buying this new book? The answer is yes. The text updates Winkler et al. and an extensive bibliography of post-2002 publications is provided (current enough to include, for example, del Rio et al.'s 2013 six-way split of the 'Golden-green' Woodpecker Piculus 'chrysochloros' complex). The photographs provide a useful complement to both Winkler et al. and HBW 7. For example, the distinctly larger bill of White-bellied Piculet Picumnus spilogaster compared with other similar species is clearly shown – something that I have not seen in field guide illustrations.

In short, a really nice reference book to an attractive and often under-rated group of birds. This will surely set the record straight. Excellent work Gerard!


del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (2002) Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 7: jacamars to woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona. 613 pp.

Gorman, G. (2004) Woodpeckers of Europe: a study of the European Picidae. Bruce Coleman: London. 192 pp.

Gorman, G. (2011) The Black Woodpecker: a monograph on Dryocopus martius. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona. 184 pp.

Winkler, H., Christie, D. A. & Nurney, D. (1995) Woodpeckers: a guide to the woodpeckers, piculets and wrynecks of the world. A & C Black: London. 416 pp.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Book review: Tracks and Signs of the Animals and Birds of Britain and Europe by Lars-Henrik Olsen

Tracks and Signs of the Animals and Birds of Britain and Europe

Lars-Henrik Olsen
Princeton University Press | 2013
272 pp. | 16 x 23.5 cm | 600 colour illustrations & photographs. 25 maps
Paperback flexibound | £17.95 / $29.95 | ISBN: 9780691157535

This is a very well produced, abundantly illustrated guide to the tracks and signs of 175 species of European mammals and birds, bound in a field-friendly, flexible cover. The first hundred pages are thematic sections on bird and mammal tracks, scat, feeding signs, nests and dens, pellets and feathers, while the remainder of the book comprises species accounts for mammals. The first part of the book is the most useful in identification since, for example, different types of owl pellet and comparative illustrations of footprints are presented in the same place.

The only guide to tracks and signs I have on my shelves is the Collins Guide (Bang & Dahlstrom 1974), acquired in the late 1970s. Surprisingly, this (in a 2001 2nd edition) and the Hamlyn Guide (Brown et al. 1992) have remained the standard European field guides, despite their age. How does Olsen's guide measure up? Over the period of a few months last autumn, I made an effort to consult Bang & Dahlstrom and Olsen on every track, trail or sign I encountered.

The first test was a badger sett and obvious runs on nearby farmland. Bang & Dahlstrom cover this well, with a good description, clearly differentiating it from a fox's earth, and photos (monochrome in the original, colour in the newer edition). Olsen goes a little further, with a lot more text and images of bedding, as well as the quintessential sett.

Cutting the hay on our village green in August revealed a network of Field Vole runs. These are well depicted in my Bang & Dahlstrom, replaced by a colour photograph of winter runs in the newer edition, similar to the one used in Olsen.

Next a Goldfinch feather – easy enough to identify without a guide. None of the guides included it. Olsen has four pages dedicated to feathers of a dozen species, but not this one. He does, however, provide a lovely photograph that shows just how the Waxwing got its name.

Our garden is full of Bank Voles and Wood Mice, but which of them has been at the Hazel cobs? According to Bang & Dahlstrom, who provide excellent comparative illustrations, this neat round hole that looks to have been made by a mini tin-opener was the work of the Wood Mouse. Confusingly, Olsen has strikingly similar paintings, but with different incisor marks to illustrate the work of the Bank Vole.

Goshawk-killed Woodpigeon, Norfolk, December 2013
Over winter I encountered several Goshawk kills, all Woodpigeons, but scattered throughout the pair´s territory. Bang & Dahlstrom include a photograph that might have been taken of one of the kills I found; this is substituted with a Mallard in the 2001 edition. Olsen has a photograph of a Goshawk astride a mass of black feathers – the remains of a Coot – which is probably not as helpful.

By springtime, the first crocuses were attracting the attention of House Sparrows. All credit to Bang & Dahlstrom for including a colour photograph that captures this perfectly. Oddly, this seems to have disappeared from the newer edition, nor does Olsen mention this behaviour.

To be fair, the old Collins and Hamlyn books are true field guides – compact, portable and laid out for field reference – whereas Olsen is more of an introduction to tracks and signs for home use. Including, as it does, plenty of photographs of the animals that make tracks, as well as distribution maps, it will be particularly useful for those who do not already have a field guide to mammals. Over half the book is dedicated to species accounts of this sort rather than comparative analysis of tracks; arguably, in an identification guide, this space could have been better used for tracks themselves. This is a book aimed more at a European then a UK readership, with eight pages devoted to Red Squirrels and just one to Grey, and the inclusion of large carnivores like Lynx, Wolf and Bear, as well as ungulates like Moose and Musk Ox.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy here, from the new illustrations to the excellent photographs. A useful addition to the literature on tracks and signs, which adds to the previously available guides. Sadly, we still do not have a European reference equivalent of Mark Elbroch's superb Mammal tracks and signs: a guide to North American species.


Bang, P. & Dahlstrom, P. (1974) Animal tracks and signs. Collins: London. 240 pp.

Bang, P. & Dahlstrom, P. (2001) Animal tracks and signs. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 264 pp.

Brown, R.W., Lawrence, M.J., & Pope, J. (1992) Animal tracks, trails and signs. Hamlyn: London. 320 pp.

Elbroch, M. (2003) Mammal tracks and signs: a guide to North American species. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA. 780 pp. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

What do the scientific names of birds mean?

I have always found it easy to remember the scientific names of the birds and other organisms with which I work. In fact, for groups like fungi, insects and Neotropical birds, I find it easier to memorise a scientific name than to try to recall the often inappropriate English name that the species in question happens to be called in one place or another throughout its range. I think this preference for scientific names comes down to at least a rudimentary understanding of their meaning. Admittedly, I am the kind of person who likes to read a field guide or a dictionary, as many people read a novel. The Compact Oxford English dictionary is one of my favourite reads, albeit with the aid of a magnifying glass these days. So, naturally, I love James Jobling's A dictionary of scientific bird names. My particular copy was a gift from two fanatical world birders, Mark Sokol and Lanie Langlois, the sort of people who spend their Californian winter weekends and evenings researching the minutiae of avian systematics and taxonomy in order to better understand which taxa – potential species – they need to see on their next trip. At the time Jobling was extraordinarily difficult to find and was rather pricey, so I am eternally grateful to have received the book. A decade later, I suspect that I have had their money's worth: this is a book that I consult constantly and read for pleasure as well.

While I have been using HBW Alive over the last few months, I have noticed that as my mouse passes over a bird name, a box pops up with a surprising amount of etymological information. I have come to spend some time exploring this. I've always had a soft spot for Xiphocolaptes promeropirhynchus ("Sugarbird-billed Swordpecker"), the rhythm of the scientific name being almost poetic, its heft matching that of the bird – which is perhaps better known as Strong-billed Woodcreeper.

Only now have I found out that the person responsible is the very same James Jobling. Apart from adding this information to the species accounts, he has produced a Key to Scientific Names in Ornithology, which enables the user to determine the meaning of any scientific name, together with a fascinating introduction to the subject. So, if you have ever wondered what a bird's name means, look no further than this wonderful on-line resource. More information is to be found here.


Jobling, J.A. (1991) A dictionary of scientific bird names. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 272 pp.

Book review: Wildlife of the Caribbean by Herb Raffaele and Jim Wiley

Wildlife of the Caribbean

Herbert A. Raffaele & James W. Wiley
Princeton University Press | 2014
304 pp. | 12.8 x 29.3 cm | 600 colour illustrations. 1 map Paperback | £13.95 / $19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153827

The Caribbean is a popular destination for travellers and, as well as its signature beaches, it harbours a diverse and distinctive fauna and flora, with a large number of island endemics. Up until now there has been a lack of a field guide to enable the curious visitor to readily identify what he/she encounters. Sure enough, there are several slim photographic brochures covering different aspects of the natural world, and the wonderful old Riley field guide to butterflies, but the only really good modern resource is the comprehensive Birds of the West Indies (not to be confused with James Bond's pioneering book of the same name). Two of the authors of that guide, Herb Raffaele and Jim Wiley, have teamed up to fill the gap with this handy little pocket guide which aims to cover pretty much anything the casual visitor might encounter, from conspicuous plants to reef fish and seashells. The book is “intended to serve as a practical guide for local people and tourists alike” and the authors “presume its users have no particular experience or expertise with nature”.

The book is small and light enough to fit into a large pocket, pouch or handbag, so it can be taken almost anywhere. It is very well organised and carefully laid out, with text opposite or next to plates, so there is no need to flip back and forth to find a description. The book is split into two sections: terrestrial and marine. Chapters on terrestrial wildlife deal with plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish and invertebrates. The marine section covers whales and manatee, sea turtles, reef fish and marine invertebrates, including shells. So, whether in the mountains, on the beach, or snorkelling, this guide should be of service. The 451 commonest and most widespread species have been chosen, leaving out a large number of organisms that are rarely encountered. Most of the illustrations are paintings by several different artists, but plants and invertebrates are depicted with photographs. Given the track record of the authors, each with over 40 years' experience in the Caribbean, the user can be sure that the text is authoritative.

A 300+ page, full-colour guide written by experts, priced at £14 (and quite a lot cheaper on-line) is a real bargain. This handy guide will be welcomed by residents, casual holiday-makers and wildlife enthusiasts alike.


Bond, J. (1936) Birds of the West Indies. Academy of Natural Sciences: Philadelphia, PA. 456 pp.

Raffaele, H., Wiley, J., Garrido, O., Keith, A. & Raffaele, J. (1998) Birds of the West Indies. Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ. 511 pp.

Raffaele, H., Wiley, J., Garrido, O., Keith, A. & Raffaele, J. (2003) Birds of the West Indies. Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ. 216 pp.

Riley, N.D. (1975) Field guide to the butterflies of the West Indies. Collins: London. 224 pp.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Norfolk moths: Rockland St. Peter garden, 3 July 2014 ('Moth Night 2014')

Organised by Atropos and Butterfly Conservation, Moth Night is the annual celebration of moth recording throughout Britain and Ireland by enthusiasts, with local events aimed at raising awareness of moths among the general public. This year the organisers are inviting moth enthusiasts to record the moths they observe on any one or more of the days or nights 3rd5th July. Having checked the weather forecast, Thursday 3rd July looked to be the best night of the three. Sure enough, this short night the trap was on for six and a half hours produced a record-breaking catch.
After a glorious warm, sunny day, skies remained clear for most of the night, with temperatures of 17.7°C at 23h30 and 12.3°C when I turned off the MV light at 04h15. A moderate SW during the day calmed by evening. The first quarter moon was barely noticeable. Blackbirds
Four species of hawk-moths, of which Pine Hawk-moth was new. Peppered Moths came in two flavours: one each of the normal light form and f. carbonaria. Local species included a lovely, fresh Dwarf Cream Wave, 3 Large Twin-spot Carpets, my second Wood Carpet, a Lilac Beauty, Sycamore, another Miller, Dingy Shears, a striking Scarce Silver-lines and 7 Beautiful Hook-tips. Of conservation concern was a Cream-bordered Green Pea which is Nationally Scarce B (species occurring nationally in 31100 hectads).

Large Twin-spot Carpet Xanthorhoe quadrifasiata
Wood Carpet Epirrhoe rivata
Lilac Beauty Apeira syringaria
Pine Hawk-moth Hyloicus pinastri
Sycamore Acronicta aceris
Dingy Shears Parastichtis ypsillon
Scarce Silver-lines Bena bicolorana

Macro-moths (198 moths of 62 spp.):-

Cilix glaucata Chinese Character 1
Habrosyne pyritoides Buff Arches 3
Geometra papilionaria Large Emerald 1
Timandra comae Blood-vein 1
Idaea fuscovenosa Dwarf Cream Wave 1
Idaea dimidiata Single-dotted Wave 3
Idaea aversata Riband Wave 7
Xanthorhoe quadrifasiata Large Twin-spot Carpet 3
Epirrhoe rivata Wood Carpet 1
Camptogramma bilineata Yellow Shell 1
Eulithis pyraliata Barred Straw 1
Perizoma alchemillata Small Rivulet 1
Pasiphila rectangulata Green Pug 4
Lomaspilis marginata Clouded Border 7
Opisthograptis luteolata Brimstone Moth 6
Apeira syringaria Lilac Beauty 1
Crocallis elinguaria Scalloped Oak 1
Ourapteryx sambucaria Swallow-tailed Moth 2
Biston betularia Peppered Moth 2
Ectropis bistortata Engrailed 2
Cabera pusaria Common White Wave 1
Cabera exanthemata Common Wave 2
Lomographa temerata Clouded Silver 4
Sphinx ligustri Privet Hawk-moth 1
Hyloicus pinastri Pine Hawk-moth 1
Laothoe populi Poplar Hawk-moth 1
Deilephila elpenor Elephant Hawk-moth 4
Phalera bucephala Buff-tip 4
Pheosia tremula Swallow Prominent 1
Pterostoma palpina Pale Prominent 2
Eilema lurideola Common Footman 27
Spilosoma luteum Buff Ermine 9
Agrotis exclamationis Heart and Dart 4
Axylia putris Flame 1
Ochropleura plecta Flame Shoulder 1
Noctua pronuba Large Yellow Underwing 4
Xestia triangulum Double Square-spot 11
Discestra trifolii Nutmeg 1
Melanchra persicariae Dot Moth 2
Lacanobia oleracea Bright-line Brown-eye 6
Mythimna conigera Brown-line Bright Eye 4
Mythimna ferrago Clay 4
Mythimna impura Smoky Wainscot 8
Acronicta aceris Sycamore 1
Acronicta leporina Miller 1
Amphipyra pyramidea agg. Copper Underwing agg. 1
Parastichtis ypsillon Dingy Shears 1
Apamea monoglypha Dark Arches 2
Apamea lithoxylaea Light Arches 5
Oligia strigilis agg. Marbled Minor agg. 1
Hoplodrina alsines Uncertain 7
Paradrina clavipalpis Pale Mottled Willow 2
Earias clorana Cream-bordered Green Pea 1
Bena bicolorana Scarce Silver-lines 1
Diachrysia chrysitis Burnished Brass 1
Autographa jota Plain Golden Y 1
Abrostola tripartita Spectacle 1
Laspeyria flexula Beautiful Hook-tip 7
Rivula sericealis Straw Dot 1
Hypena proboscidalis Snout 3
Zanclognatha tarsipennalis Fan-foot 8
Herminia grisealis Small Fan-foot 1

Micro-moths (23 moths identified, of 5 spp.):-

Eurrhypara hortulata Small Magpie 11
Phlyctaenia coronata
Pleuroptya ruralis Mother of Pearl 7
Aphomia sociella Bee Moth 3
Pterophorus pentadactyla White Plume Moth 1

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Norfolk moths: Rockland St. Peter garden, 20 June 2014

It might have been about the shortest night of the year, with the trap only on for six hours or so, but it yielded the best catch I have had from this Skinner trap. After a warm, sunny day, skies remained clear for most of the night, with temperatures of 13.2°C at 22h30 and 10.0°C when I turned off the MV light at 04h00. Calm, with the hint of a light S air. A last quarter moon, with the new moon a week off.

There was still almost no activity by 23h00. The trap was almost dead, except for a Aphomia sociella Bee Moth on the wall alongside. I had painted a bit of sugar around the garden, but only a few Marbled Minor spp. had come in. I anticipated a quiet night. But by 03h45 the trap was abuzz with insects attempting to escape. It took me the remainder of the morning to identify and log all the moths, and even then I had to pass over several other pugs, though not Green Pug an easy call! The more unusual species included a Wood Carpet (noticeably larger than the 2 Common Carpets and with almost no black wavy bisecting line in the outer white band of the forewing; confirmed by Jon Clifton), a Miller resting on the wall, Bird's Wing, a couple of Large Nutmegs (confirmed by Andy Mackay) and a Beautiful Hook-tip on the side of the trap – all nationally local species. Highlights for me were 2 Privet, 2 Elephant and a single Poplar Hawk-moth.  (I only got a quick photo before it left & will post).

Privet Hawk-moth Sphinx ligustri      

Elephant Hawk-moth Deilephila elpenor      

Bird's Wing Dypterygia scabriuscula

Large Nutmeg Apamea anceps      

Miller Acronicta leporina      

Green Pug Pasiphila rectangulata      

Wood Carpet Epirrhoe rivata      

Macro-moths (188 moths of 41 spp.):-

Hepialus humuli Ghost Moth 1
Idaea biselata Small Fan-footed Wave 1
Idaea aversata Riband Wave 16
Epirrhoe alternata Common Carpet 2
Epirrhoe rivata Wood Carpet 1
Eulithis pyraliata Barred Straw 3
Pasiphila rectangulata Green Pug 3
Lomaspilis marginata Clouded Border 6
Biston betularia Peppered Moth 1
Peribatodes rhomboidaria Willow Beauty 2
Alcis repandata Mottled Beauty 10
Cabera pusaria Common White Wave 3
Lomographa temerata Clouded Silver 3
Sphinx ligustri Privet Hawk-moth 2
Laothoe populi Poplar Hawk-moth 1
Deilephila elpenor Elephant Hawk-moth 2
Phalera bucephala Buff-tip 11
Eilema lurideola Common Footman 3
Spilosoma luteum Buff Ermine 6
Agrotis clavis Heart and Club 1
Agrotis exclamationis Heart and Dart 3
Axylia putris Flame 20
Ochropleura plecta Flame Shoulder 8
Xestia triangulum Double Square-spot 19
Lacanobia oleracea Bright-line Brown-eye 5
Mythimna ferrago Clay 2
Mythimna pallens Common Wainscot 2
Acronicta leporina Miller 1
Dypterygia scabriuscula Bird's Wing 1
Rusina ferruginea Brown Rustic 3
Apamea monoglypha Dark Arches 4
Apamea anceps Large Nutmeg 2
Oligia strigilis agg. Marbled Minor agg. 8
Hoplodrina alsines Uncertain 9
Hoplodrina blanda Rustic 2
Caradrina morpheus Mottled Rustic 8
Diachrysia chrysitis Burnished Brass 1
Abrostola tripartita Spectacle 1
Laspeyria flexula Beautiful Hook-tip 1
Hypena proboscidalis Snout 8
Zanclognatha tarsipennalis Fan-foot 2

Micro-moths (12 moths identified, of 3 spp.):-

Tortrix viridana Green Oak Tortrix 1
Eurrhypara hortulata Small Magpie 10
Aphomia sociella Bee Moth 1